AMATEUR ASTRONOMER JIM WHITE, FROM TROUT LAKE GIVES A MONTHLY GUIDELINE ON VIEWING OUR SKY...
Whats in the Sky
July, our first full month of summer is here. Days are beginning to grow shorter, and nights longer, as the seasons progress. At the start of July, daylength will be quite long, with sunset coming at about 9pm and sunrise at about 5:20am. By the end of the month, the Sun will set about 25 minutes earlier at 8:35pm, and sunrise will be about 27 minutes later at about 5:47am. July (and August) can be excellent months for stargazing, as nights start to come earlier, but weather is pleasant for viewing the night sky.
An interesting sight to put on your calendar occurs on July 12. After sunset, look low in the west, and look for bright Venus. The bright planet will be hard to miss, about 15 degrees above the horizon. If you have a pair of binoculars, see if you can spot Mars, located right next to Venus, below and to the right of the bright planet, at about the 7 o’clock position from Venus. Now look above and to the left of Venus, and find the faint crescent Moon, about the width of your extended fist from Venus.
The solar system’s largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are moving back into the evening sky in July. They will be quite low at the start of the month, but by the end of July will be above the horizon by 10pm. Look for them low in the east after sunset. Early in July they will not rise until 11:30pm or a bit later.
Our Moon will begin the month in the morning sky. On July 5, if you are up early, you may see a beautiful crescent Moon just to the right of the Pleiades star cluster. The Moon will be above the bright star Spica on the 16th, and above Antares on the 19th. The Moon will be to the right of Saturn on the 23rd, and below Jupiter on the 26th.
Some of you may have been able to visit the Goldendale Observatory in May and June, when the State Park held limited attendance, afternoon solar viewing. I was able to attend in early June. I enjoyed a presentation about our Sun, and a view of our star through the facilities’ 6-inch refractor. In July, evening presentations (Saturday and Sunday only, 9pm to midnight) will also be started. As with the afternoon solar presentations, attendance is limited, and you must reserve a spot in advance, on the Observatory’s web page. Visit (www.goldendaleobservatory.com) for the latest.
If you are interested in supporting the Observatory or one of the other Goldendale-area State Parks (Maryhill, Brooks Memorial, Columbia Hills), a group is being formed to provide volunteer assistance. If this piques your interest, let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I can provide you with information.
An interesting bright star in the July sky is Altair, the southernmost star of the “summer triangle” and the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. Look for Altair below the bright star Vega, and below the constellation Cygnus, also known as the northern cross. You can use the Milky Way to find Altair – Vega and Cygnus will be on one side of the Milky Way, with Altair on the other.
Altair is the 12th brightest star in our sky, and one of the closest to our solar system, being only about 16.8 light-years distant. Altair is about twice the diameter and 1.7 times the mass of our Sun. Amazingly, the star rotates in about 10 hours, making it bulge at its equator, and thus has an oblate shape, bulging out at its equator. Check out the “eye” of the Eagle!
Enjoy July’s night skies!
Whats in the Sky
Here comes summer! The summer solstice comes on June 20 this year, when the Sun is as far north as it gets. Nights will be warmer, but you need to stay up later to see the stars! Sunset does not come until around 9pm in June, and skies are not completely dark until much later, about 11:45pm on June 20. Don’t let that stop you though, stars and constellations are visible much earlier.
That time after sunset, when the sky is still partly illuminated, is called twilight. The corresponding term for the morning is dawn. Astronomers divide twilight into 3 periods. The first is called “civil twilight”, when the Sun has set, but is less than 6 degrees below the horizon. Civil twilight ends at about 9:40pm in June. During civil twilight, there is enough natural sunlight that artificial light is not needed for outdoor activities, and you can only view the brightest objects in the sky, like the bright planets and bright stars (and the Moon, of course). Nautical twilight comes next, when the Sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon. In June, nautical twilight will end at about 10:30pm. Artificial light is usually needed for outdoor activities, and most stars can be seen with the naked eye. The term comes from times when sailors used the stars to navigate. The final stage of twilight is called astronomical twilight, when the Sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon. Most objects can be viewed with a telescope during astronomical twilight, although a small amount of sunlight still scattered in the sky may make faint objects difficult to see. Astronomical twilight ends at around 11:45pm in June. In the morning, the three twilight zones are reversed. Astronomical dawn comes at about 2:30am, nautical dawn at about 3:45am, and civil dawn starts at about 4:30am.
Venus and Mars continue to be the visible planets in the evening sky. Last October, when Mars was at opposition, the red planet was about 39 million miles from Earth. At the start of June, Mars will be about 209 million miles away, and will be some 225 million miles from us at the end of June. It is easy to see why the Mars Rover Perseverance was launched in the fall of 2020! Venus is much closer at about 150 million miles in June. Venus is easy to spot after sunset, as the bright “evening star”, low in the west.
If you are up before sunrise, you can see Saturn and Jupiter as bright “stars” low in the southern sky. On June 1, the waning gibbous Moon will lie right below Jupiter. On June 27, the Moon will be just below Saturn, and will be below Jupiter again on the 28th. June’s new Moon will come on June 10, with full Moon following on the 24th.
On June 10, there will be an annular eclipse of the Sun. Alas, it will not be visible in our area, occurring from about 2:30am to 4:00am, when the Sun is below the horizon. “Annular” eclipses occur when the Moon is slightly farther away from Earth, and the apparent size of the Moon is a bit smaller than the Sun. The Sun appears as a bright ring around the dark disk of the Moon. Another term for a ring is an annulus, hence the name. It does not mean it occurs annually!
Last month I mentioned the bright star Vega, the 5th brightest star in our sky. I also briefly mentioned nearby Arcturus, which comes in at #4, slightly brighter than Vega. You can locate Arcturus by following the “arc” of the Big Dipper’s handle to a bright star, Arcturus. The star was an interesting focus for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. A previous World’s Fair in Chicago had occurred in 1893, 40 years before. Arcturus was about 40 light-years from Earth, so light arriving in 1933 would have left the star in about 1893. Telescopes were used to focus the star’s light on photovoltaic cells, and the resulting electric current was used to flip a switch, turning on the lights for the Fair. We’ve since refined the distance to Arcturus to be about 37 light-years, but it was a unique use of technology for the time.
Enjoy June’s skies!
Here is a stargazing article for March. The picture of Mars, the Moon, Pleiades did not come out well in white with black stars, so I've included it with a dark sky background. If that does not print well, I've included another option of the morning planets on March 5.
Whats in the Sky
It seems that 2021 has just begun, and here we are already in March, and the coming of spring! The first day of spring will be on March 20. On that day, the Sun will lie directly above the equator, and day and night length will be about equal.
Another change we’ll have is the annual shift from standard time to daylight savings time. Remember to “spring ahead” (set your clocks forward an hour) on March 14.
Our March evening skies are again devoid of the bright planets, with the exception of Mars. The red planet was the cause of much excitement in February, with the successful landing of the robotic spacecraft “Perseverance”, on February 18th. Expect more interest from this probe in the near future, including the flight of a small helicopter, the first flight on another planet!
Mars is growing farther from us and fainter in our sky, but still bright enough to be easily picked out. This month Mars will lie just to the right of the Constellation Taurus, the Bull, and just to the left of the bright star cluster Pleiades. On the 9th, Mar will be right between the Pleiades and Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. The planet and the star should provide an interesting comparison. They will be about equally bright as we see them. In reality, Aldebaran is some 4 million times farther away from us as Mars. Aldebaran is a red giant star, about 44 times the radius of our Sun. Check them out on the 9th or around that date. By the end of the month, Mars will have moved away from Aldebaran and the Pleiades, and will be located above the bright star in our sky.
If you miss the bright planets, you can see them in the early morning sky. On March 5, Jupiter and Mercury will have a close conjunction, low in the southeast before sunrise. Saturn will be to their right, and a bit higher in the sky. In the days after that, Mercury will pull away from Jupiter, and we’ll have a line of planets low in the sky, with Mercury on the left, Jupiter in the middle, and Saturn on the right. Watch for it on a clear morning!
The bright winter constellations of Orion and Taurus are still in the evening sky, now in the southwest. To the east, Leo the lion is now visible, just to the right of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. In the north, find Cassiopeia to the left of Polaris, and Ursa Major to the right.
On March 1, our Moon is a waning crescent, rising in the southeast at about 9pm, very close to the bright star Spica. On the 6th and 7th, the Moon will be visible in the morning, low in the south, in Scorpius and Sagittarius. New Moon comes on March 13. On the 18th, the waxing crescent Moon joins Mars, Aldebaran, and the Pleiades in the southwestern sky. On the 22nd, the Moon will lie beneath the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Full Moon follows on the 28th.
With summer approaching, I am hoping that the Goldendale Observatory will be able to re-open and we will be able to enjoy the updated facility. In the meantime, I hope some of you have been able to enjoy the online presentations from Troy Carpenter, Observatory Director. Troy has some great presentations about a variety of topics, including our Moon, the Sun, exoplanets, and more. He also has come great video of stars, northern lights, and a comet taken from the Observatory. Go to the Observatory website at www.goldendaleobservatory.com and follow the link to live events.
A few folks in the Goldendale area are forming a volunteer group to provide assistance to the Observatory. If that interests you, send an email to me (email@example.com), Earlene Sullivan (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Laurie Wilhite (email@example.com).
What’s in the Sky, January 2021
Welcome to 2021! Another year to view the wonders of the night sky. January will feature the usual wonder of the bright constellations of winter, Mars shining as a red beacon in the evening sky, and a chance to spot Uranus, a planet many have never viewed.
Nights will still be long in January, but beginning to get shorter. We will gain almost an hour of daylight during the month, and by the end of the month the Sun will set over ½ hour later than at new year. The advantage of these long nights is that you will not have to stay up late to catch the beauty of the winter sky, even if the cold makes your outside trip abbreviated!
A bevy of bright stars and constellations occupy the southeast and southern sky after sunset. 6 of the night skies 15 brightest stars will be visible – Sirius (the brightest, other than our Sun, in Canis Major), Capella (#7, in the constellation Auriga), Betelgeuse (#11, the shoulder of Orion), Rigel (#8, foot of Orion), and Procyon (#9, in Canis Minor). When you toss in the twins of Gemini (Castor, #25) and Pollux (#18) you have a dazzling display that makes the winter sky a favorite for many. Check them out on a clear night!
Mars still shines bright in the southern sky. The red planet is growing farther away from Earth, but it is still bright, outshining nearby stars. Watch its movement to the east during January. Early in the month it will be below and to the right of the constellation Aries, and by the end of January it will be to the southeast of the constellation, and closer to the bright star cluster Pleiades.
In January, Mars will also closely approach the planet Uranus, providing a good “signpost” to that outer planet. In mid-January, both planets should be visible in the view of a pair of binoculars. Uranus will be located below and to the right of Mars from about the 15th to the 25th of the month, and will be slightly brighter than stars in the immediate area. The planet is technically visible to the naked eye, but appears as a very faint star, so is difficult to pick out. If you want to give it a try, use the drawing with this article to determine its orientation relative to Mars. Uranus will NOT be as “large” as the little dot in the article, but the location helps you know where to look. Let me know if you see it!
We begin the new year with a waning gibbous Moon, low in the eastern sky. The 3rd quarter Moon will lie just above the bright star Spica on the morning of January 6, and above Antares, in Scorpius on the 9th. New Moon comes on January 13. On the 14th, see if you can spot the thin, crescent Moon to the right of Mercury and Jupiter, low in the southwest at sunset. On January 20, the first-quarter Moon will lie right below Mars in the southern evening sky. On the 23rd, the now bright Moon will be just above Aldebara, and the open star cluster Hyades in the constellation Taurus. Full Moon comes on the 28th.
I’ve mentioned it before in this column, but the star cluster Hyades is an interesting sight, in binoculars or with the naked eye. It makes up the “face” of Taurus, the bull. The bright star Aldebaran, which is not a part of the cluster, makes an eye of the bull. And how appropriate Aldebaran seems, an orange-giant star that can be imagined as the blood-red eye of a charging bull! But Aldebaran is much closer than the stars of the cluster. Aldebaran is about 65 light-years from us, whereas the members of the cluster are about 150 light-years away.
Hopefully some of you have been able to take in one of the online presentations from the Goldendale Observatory. The Observatory’s director, Troy Carpenter, has been conducting discussions of about an hour in length of various subjects, at 7pm on Sunday nights. Even if you do not catch them live, you can watch them later on the State Park’s YouTube channel. If you join live, you can ask questions via chat. To date, as I write this just before Christmas, Troy has discussed satellites, the Moon, and the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Go to https://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/, click on “live events” and then the “Episode Playlist” to give it a try!
What’s in the Sky, December 2020
Here we are already at December, the year’s last month. In addition to the winter solstice and the Geminid meteor shower, this December will feature a rare conjunction between the solar system’s 2 giants, Jupiter and Saturn. So, let’s hope for at least a few clear nights to enjoy the night sky!
The big event this December is the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, on the 21st of the month. On that night, the two gas giant planets will be about 1/10 of a degree apart, close enough for both to be seen in a telescope’s eyepiece. As a comparison, the Moon is about ½ degree wide as we see it from Earth. At the start of December, Saturn will be about 2 degrees to the left of Jupiter. During the month, you will be able to see Saturn grow closer to Jupiter each night, and pass the Jovian giant after the 21st. Both planets will be very low in the southwest, only about 15 degrees above the horizon at sunset, and will set by about 6:45pm on the 21st. So, if skies are clear, look for a location with a good view of the southwestern sky, and look soon after sunset, which occurs at about 4:30pm.
As we all know, skies are usually cloudy in December, not to mention the cold! And with COVID closures, you can’t even visit the Goldendale Observatory. But you can listen to Observatory Manager Troy Carpenter give some excellent presentations on the internet. Go to the Observatory web page and click on “Live Events” for information about live-streamed talks conducted by Troy. On December 6, he’ll be discussing “The 3D Universe”, about the structure of constellations and other shapes we see in the sky.
At the start of December, we’ll be just past the partially-eclipsed full Moon of Nov. 30. December’s full Moon will occur on the 30th. New Moon will be on December 14. On the first of the month, the Moon will be located between the horns of Taurus the bull. On the third, find the Moon just below the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. On the 6th, the Moon will lie just above the bright star Regulus in Leo in the early morning sky. On the 10th, a very thin waning crescent Moon will lie just above the bright star Spica in the southeastern morning sky. Returning to the evening sky later in the month, the Moon will travel through the constellations Aquarius, Cetus, and Pisces in the southeastern sky. On the 23rd, you’ll find the Moon just below the planet Mars. On Christmas night, the waxing gibbous Moon will be just to the right of the Pleiades star cluster, and the bright star Aldebaran.
Mars, the star of the sky in October, is now growing noticeably fainter as it moves away from Earth. By the end of December, it will be about 83 million miles from Earth, over twice the distance from its October approach of about 39 million miles. It will still outshine nearby stars though, and its reddish color makes it distinctive. Look for Mars in the southwestern sky after dark, in the constellation Pisces.
Our binocular object for December is the Hyades open star cluster, in the constellation Taurus. The Hyades cluster consists of about 150 stars of similar age and origin. To find the Hyades, look in the eastern sky for the familiar constellation Orion, or the open star cluster Pleiades. Above Orion and below the Pleiades, find the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. Aldebaran is bright and reddish in color. You may notice a “v” shape made up by the stars around Aldebaran – those are the bright stars of the Hyades cluster. Fix your binoculars on them for a very nice sight! Aldebaran is not a part of the cluster, it is much closer to us, and just happens to be on the same line of sight.
GLENWOOD, WASHINGTON ALSO ADDED THIS PHOTO FROM
EARTH SKY NEWS
What’s in the Sky
As November arrives, remember to “fall back” and set clocks back 1 hour on the first of the month as we return to standard time. Daylight savings time officially ends at 2am on November 1.
Both Oregon and Washington have approved measures to eliminate the change, and make daylight savings time permanent. Some 32 states in all have voted to do so. But Congress has the final say, and we won’t eliminate the annual switch until a national measure is passed. Interestingly, the European Union has also planned eliminating the switch, except they plan to use “winter time” as the standard, the same thing we now call “standard time”. And even if we switch, individual states can still choose to stay with standard time. Currently, Arizona and Hawaii do not use daylight savings time, as do several US territories.
October graced us with two full Moons, including one on Halloween. November can’t match that, but it does have a lunar eclipse on the 29th and 30th of the month. The bad news is that the eclipse will be partial, and barely noticeable. A portion of the Moon will darken a bit, starting at about 11:30pm. The maximum will be at about 1:45am on the 30th and it will end at about 4 am.
November is the month of a the Leonid meteor shower, peaking on the 17th and 18th. At that time, the Earth passes through the orbital path of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, and some of the debris from the comet drops through Earth’s atmosphere, burning up as it does and producing the meteors we see. There will not be a bright Moon on those nights, so dark skies should help to see fainter meteors.
November starts with a Moon that is just past full. New Moon comes on the 14th, with full Moon on the 29th and 30th, the date of the partial eclipse. On the 2nd of the month, the Moon will lie just above the planet Mars. On the 9th, the waning crescent Moon will lie next to the bright star Regulus, in the morning sky. On the 29th, the full Moon will lie just above the bright star Aldebaran, and below the Pleiades star cluster.
The solar system’s giants, Jupiter and Saturn, have been visible in the evening sky all year, but are now growing quite low in the southwest, setting during evening hours. At the start of November, both will set by about 9:30pm. By the end of the month, both will set by about 8pm. Mars is still nicely visible, but is moving farther away from Earth and will not be quite as bright as in October. Its red color will make it easy to pick out, high in the southern evening sky.
Bright Venus will remain a morning object in November, located low in the southeast before sunrise. Little Mercury will be located very low in the southeast in mid-November, below Venus.
Winter constellations are beginning to show up in the eastern sky in November. Taurus, the Bull, and Auriga, the charioteer, are above the horizon at the beginning of the month by 8pm. By the end of November, Gemini and Orion enter the scene. In the southern sky, Pegasus rides high, identified by its “square” of 4 almost equally bright stars. The “summer triangle” of stars Deneb, Altair, and Vega are low in the western sky. In the north, Ursa major and the Big Dipper ride low near the northern horizon.
The constellation Auriga holds binocular objects to check out in November, a trio of bright star clusters. Auriga may not look much like a chariot, but it does contain a roughly 5-sided pattern of bright stars.
The brightest of the group is Capella, the sixth-brightest star in the night sky. Capella is sometimes referred to as the “Goat star” and a nearby little triangle of stars as “the kids”. Look for Capella and the kids low in the eastern November evening sky. The “kids” will be just to the right of bright Capella. They will both be on the upper part of the 5-sided pattern of stars. Scan with your binoculars to the right and below Capella, at about the 5 o’clock position, about 10 degrees from the bright star. That’s about the width of your fist held at arm’s length. Look for a “fuzzy star”. If you have a small telescope, you should be able to make out individual stars in the cluster. You have found the cluster M38. Look just below M38, and you may be able to spot a very similar cluster, M36. Below that, just outside of the 5-sided pattern, is yet another cluster, M36. Use the picture with this article, and see if you can find them!
Enjoy November’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
Here we are already in October, the first full month of fall. Days are really getting shorter now. Do you sometimes think they are getting shorter at a faster rate? If you have, or have heard others saying something like “boy, it is really getting dark early!” you are not imagining things. The length of day changes the greatest around the equinoxes (first days of fall and spring) and the least at the solstices (start of winter and summer). According to my computer program, day length in October decreases by about an average of 3 minutes a day. In December, by contrast, we only lose about 1/3 of a minute a day. Don’t despair if you miss the Sun, the opposite happens in Spring, when the length of day increases at a more rapid rate.
If you like the full Moon, you have two of them in October. The Moon will be full at the start of the month on Oct. 1, the “Harvest Moon”, and also on Halloween, the “Hunters Moon”. With good weather, we’ll have some nice moonlight to guide the way for young trick-or-treaters. New Moon will occur on October 16.
Jupiter and Saturn will still be nicely visible in the evening sky, but the real story of October will be Mars. The red planet makes its closest approach to Earth about every 2 years, and that will happen this month, on the 13th. Mars will be about 35.8 million miles from Earth at that time. It will be unmistakable in the southern sky, with its distinct reddish color, and its brightness – it will outshine stars in the southern sky, and will be brighter than Jupiter and Saturn. Get a look in mid-October if you can, since Mars will move away from us quite quickly. By the end of October, it will be over 43 million miles from us, 60 million miles distant by December 1, and about 84 million miles away by the first of the year. Look for Mars in the southeastern evening sky. One good time will be October 2, Mars will be right above the waning gibbous Moon. Don’t miss Mars in October!
With Sunrise coming later in the morning, many folks arise when skies are still dark. Take a peek at the eastern sky with your morning cup of coffee, and enjoy dazzling Venus, low in the morning sky. On the mornings of October 2 and 3, Venus makes a close approach with the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo. Venus has enjoyed some recognition lately, with the discovery of the chemical phosphine in its atmosphere. Phosphine here on Earth is known to be made by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, and is made industrially. The possible link with microbial life makes the Venus discovery of great interest. There may be a yet-to-be discovered way it is formed chemically. Safe to say that we will see future exploration of Venus’ atmosphere!
If you have binoculars, try locating the “Double-Cluster” in the constellation Perseus, in October’s northeastern sky. Two neighboring clusters of stars, about 7,400 light-years distant, make for a very nice sight. They are faintly visible with the naked eye. Look in the northeast, and find the “W” shaped constellation Cassiopeia. Directly below Cassiopeia is the constellation Perseus. The clusters are about 15 degrees below Cassiopeia, or a bit larger than the width of your fist with your arm outstretched. Use the picture with this column to help locate it!
Many readers are familiar with the Goldendale Observatory State Park, and may be wondering what is up with the facility with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID’s timing could not have been worse; the upgraded facility had just re-opened last winter when the pandemic hit us, and the Observatory is still closed. You can, however, enjoy presentations from Observatory Director Troy Carpenter online, via Facebook. Troy has put together three presentations to date, one discussing Venus and its phases, one focusing on comet Neowise, and a more recent one, “virtual astronomy”. To view the videos, go the Goldendale Observatory web page (http://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/), click on “Special Events”, and then on “Facebook: WA State Parks”. That will take you to the Washington State Parks Facebook page (you need to be logged in to Facebook). On that page, click on “videos”, and scroll down to find the Observatory videos. You’ll be treated to some excellent information and great astrophotography. A perfect activity for a cloudy evening!